Masai Ujiri: ‘Turning a losing team into NBA champions’
Forty-nine-year-old Masai Ujiri is the miracle-working basketball executive, who turned a losing Toronto Raptors team into 2019 NBA champions.
Born in Bournemouth England and having been raised in Nigeria, Masai narrates his success as a tale of luck, obviously struggling to accept and relish his victory as a coach.
Growing up, Masai had very little interest in basketball because the focus of the nation was on soccer. But when he started spending more time on the court shooting hoops and getting fascinated with the game, Ujiri knew he wanted to actively get involved.
Following his passion, Ujiri competed in the European circuit, playing competitively in England, Belgium, and Germany amongst other countries, but says he never felt good enough as a player, and instead, chose to try coaching.
His impeccable talent identification skills landed him a scouting role in 2002, but to this meant he had to work for free for the Orlando Magic, since he was now starting a new career.
“Everybody would go up to their five-star hotel and I would sneak to my $20-a-night motel,” he said. This did not last long anyway as he hit it big time and was soon earning enough to sleep in these 5-star hotels himself.
He signed a $3 million, five-year deal as the president of basketball operations at the Raptors in 2013, returning to the franchise after a previous stint as director of global scouting in 2007, where he was swiftly promoted to assistant general manager within one year.
Ujiri has managed to cultivate a winning culture in a team that just won its first-ever championship, helping end the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty with a 4-2 winning series in the NBA Finals earlier this summer.
Speaking with the Business Insider, Ujiri, now one of the most renowned figures in basketball used the word ‘luck’ 12 times in his interview.
Accepting a job at the Raptors in 2013, for example, wouldn’t be regarded as lucky for many, because for 10 of the previous 11 seasons before Ujiri joined the franchise, the Raptors had a win/loss success rate that was sub .500.
“When I looked at Toronto … I could see the potential of what a good team could look like there. Whether that was the fanbase, the following, the coverage, the people, the ownership, the city — it’s beautiful, and has diversity.
“The potential was huge, it ticked every single box, but the only thing we didn’t have was winning. So how do you build that brand? How do you win?
“You come in with a vision of how to start again,” he said. “Of bringing in players and bringing in a team that is going to be attractive to the market. That’s what we tried to do at the time.”
Recruiting defensive talent
Relying on his own skills as a scout, Ujiri teamed up with an existing scouting team he oversaw to search for and bring to Toronto board unheralded, overlooked, and underappreciated athletes.
“Scouting is my background. I still do it as much as I can. It was one of the keys to how I grew up in the NBA. It’s something I just take pride in.
My team of guys are so good at travelling around the world and finding talent. Sometimes it takes luck, and sometimes you have to be in the right place at the right time.”
Cameroonian forward Pascal Siakam, was one of Ujiri’s significant talents. He joined the Raptors in 2016 and developed into a potential All-Star player within three years because of his energy and ability at both ends of the court.
The Raptors were said to have a better chance of winning a game, by the NBA when he was on the team than when he was away. He became the team’s driving force — which is not bad going considering he was a 27th overall pick in the 2016 Draft.
“With Pascal Siakam, obviously the African background helped quite a bit … but it’s all him. It’s all him becoming the player he has become. All we did was have a spot and drafted him at 27. Not many people could tell. Did we know his potential was this high? I don’t know … but you could see he had a feel, a passion, and a drive that is different to everybody else.
The one thing I say about African kids is that sometimes we come and we just want to be role players … he came in and wanted to be a star. That was his goal, to be a star, and to win the league. And that’s what he has shown.”
Siakam was not the only defensive recruit Masai brought on who was making waves, Marc Gasol, the 7-foot-1 Spanish centre was also definitely pulling his weight on the team after he joined in the middle of the season.
“I was really wary about mid-season trades because the team needs a training camp, you need to prepare, and you need to come together. But he is just one of those guys who is smarter than most. He can adapt so easily, is such a selfless person, and an unbelievable human being.
“His basketball skills match almost any style you want to play. We really studied it, and we said, ‘You know what? We’re going to take this chance.'”
Raptors centre, Jonas Valanciunas along with C. J. Miles and Delon Wright were placed at the Memphis Grizzlies as part of the trade that saw Gasol arrive in Toronto.
“Jonas was good … it was hard parting ways with somebody we had been with for a while, taking this chance, but once Marc got there, you could tell he was willing to accomodate everybody, take a backseat or be aggressive when he needed to.
It was phenomenal for all these guys to play with him, and for all he did for the ball club.”
For Ujiri, his eye for talent was vindicated with the trades for Siakam and Gasol. Siakam drove the team on in a crucial Game 1 win over the Warriors in the NBA Finals, 118-109, while Gasol took little time becoming the anchor for the eventual NBA champions.
But these two were not all. Ujiri had the confidence to replace Dwane Casey, the coach who had guided the Raptors to a 59-game winning season in 2018, with an assistant coach at the franchise, Nick Nurse.
Putting Nick Nurse in charge
Ujiri defends his decision to promote Nick Nurse saying: “To be honest, with all due respect to both of them … it was more just change that was needed. We had done the same thing for so long.
Casey is a great coach … he won the coach of the year and he was really good for us. But when you repeat the same plays … it was tough. It just seemed to me we had to shift a little bit, make changes.
Nick Nurse emerged as he fit with everything we were trying to do in the organization. We went through a real in-depth interview process, interviewed a lot of candidates, but he stood out in terms of fit.
Hopefully that continues to last, he has done well in his first year.” he said.
In June 2018, Nick Nurse took over coaching after he had spent time coaching offense as a Raptors assistant for five years.
His abilities in camp and training led to increases in passing and three-point attempts during his spell serving Casey, the NBA reported.
Ujiri lauded his basketball intelligence and tactical vision at the time, and speaking one year later, again heralded Nurse for the role he played in a collective outwitting of the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“For us, the new thing in the NBA is having a two-way player. And we had to have as many two-way players as we could.
So Marc Gasol is good on the defensive end and the offensive end. We really wanted to concentrate on guys who were extremely defensive, and sometimes even over-aggressive. Marc is that way.
The defensive abilities of Kawhi Leonard … he sets the tone. The aggressiveness of Kyle Lowry when he pushes the point guard and presses, and Fred VanVleet, it’s a lot of pressure.
We felt we could build off that. Then you see guys like Pascal and OG [Anunoby] … they’re so good at switching. They’re big enough, they have quick enough feet to go from guarding point guard to guarding a big guy. It helps with how your team rotates defensively.”
Speaking about a particular game where the Raptors won 100-94 to win the Series 4-2, Ujiri further praised Nick saying: “Nick Nurse had a big game — and they executed it pretty good.”
Sealing the deal with Kwahi Leonard
Bringing Kwahi Leonard on board at the time was seen as a great gamble. Leonard in his last year with the San Antonio Spurs missed almost an entire season with tendinopathy in his left quad.
It was still unclear if he could ever return to full form, but Masai took the gamble and this greatly paid off. The Raptors hit the jackpot with Kwahi.
“I don’t want to say he was hidden, I think maybe forgotten a little bit because of his injury … but wow, what a great player.
I think we got lucky. Lucky to do a trade. We got a fantastic, phenomenal player that came and really lifted our team and all the players we had. Some people say it was a gamble … I don’t really think so. He’d always been a great player, MVP in the league. He was a guy we wanted to take a chance on.”
Ujiri further added that: “I remember in the training camp they have this drill where they play one-on-one, and he just kept winning every single game. You could tell in that stretch the caliber of player he was, obviously coming off a tough year with injury, but that moment, we were like, ‘Wow! He will be incredible’.”
And he was.
SBNation.com said Leonard’s dramatic buzzer-beating bucket in the dying moments of Game 7 in the Eastern Conference semifinals “was definitive proof ” that the Raptors made the right call trading for Leonard. “It was beautiful,” the Vox Media-owned sports blog said.
From there, the Raptors beat the Bucks in the Conference Finals. Leonard was then named MVP in the NBA Finals against the Warriors after scoring 30 points in Game 3; 36 points, 12 rebounds, four steals, and two assists in Game 4, and 22 points, six rebounds, three assists, and two steals in Game 6.
Highs and Lows
Obviously, with all the highs Kwahi brought to the team, they were bound to have their lows as well and Kwahi admits the lows was particularly in the back office.
Ujiri said it was likely to do with the Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, who felt “betrayed” that Ujiri ratified the Leonard trade in the first place, as it saw Lowry’s close friend DeMar DeRozan move to the Spurs in Leonard’s place.
“Kyle was very vocal about the trade. Slowly we had to start bringing everybody together, to think one thing — and that’s championship. That takes a while.
Especially Kawhi coming in, nobody knew him, and his personality is kinda quiet. Kyle had this going on. Then the rest of the team, you have a new coach [Nurse]. We really had to bring things together. To be honest, in sports, winning helps! And … you have to have luck.
We try. A couple bounces here. The way sports is … every team will win, that’s just the way it works. But for us, it just aligned so well with these guys, these players, and they gelled. There was chemistry.
A couple years ago we did a trade and got two unbelievable players, PJ Tucker and Serge Ibaka, but it just didn’t fit. They were two unbelievable players but when you looked at them it wasn’t what our team needed.”
“These guys fit,” Ujiri said. “And that’s why I say luck.”
Face-off with a sheriff
After the game which saw basketball power move from California to Toronto – Game 6 against the Warriors – there was an alleged altercation between Ujiri and a sheriff, preventing Ujiri from getting to the court and celebrating with his team.
The fallout which last week, immediately went viral on social media and the CBC Toronto reported that Ujiri was accused of assaulting a sheriff, and the Canadian publication was not the only media outlet to do so. The LA Times said Ujiri could face battery charges. ESPN said there was pushing and shoving between both parties.
A statement released by the Raptors read: “The incident is being looked at and we are cooperating with authorites. We look forward to resolving the situation.”
Lowry, the player Ujiri apparently had issues with, because of the Leonard trade was the one to rescue him during the altercation with the sheriff. Lowry is said to have waved Ujiri onto the court, and gave him a heartfelt embrace.
“To me, those moments happen naturally, there’s nothing made up. That’s just how it is. It was very genuine. He came to get me. All the stuff I was going through … it was awesome.
Everybody looks at when Kyle was upset because of the trade, but we have always had a big brother relationship,” Ujiri said. “He’s never been a rude or disrespectful person. He is quiet, wanting it to be business-like, and was obviously hurt by that trade. But we’ve always had a bond in some kind of way.”
After that, the trophy celebrations got underway. Ujiri couldn’t join the partying as he had to catch a red-eye-flight to Toronto with his wife to go to his 5-year-old daughter’s graduation.
The players, meanwhile, went to Las Vegas.
“I did not go to Vegas … but, apparently, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” he joked.
Building a dynasty
According to Masai Ujiri, winning does not only foster unity on the team, but it is very contagious and that is something he and the boys want to keep doing.
He even compares his reds team to soccer heavyweights Liverpool FC and Manchester United, two clubs in England who built dynasties at home and abroad, in the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League
Losing Leonard to the Los Angeles Clippers in July may seem to have dented Ujiri’s dynasty a bit, but from all indications, it was never off the table and they knew it was coming.
Regardless, Ujiri is solely focused on winning 100% of the time.
“It’s a very simple formula in my opinion. Sports is about bringing people together and winning. That’s where we keep going in our organization.”
An NBA team for the world
Ujiri Masa says it is beautiful to win an NBA championship but to do it with a city and a club he has fallen in love with, took it to a whole different stage.
He believes the Raptors are an NBA team for the entire world to enjoy.
“I feel this really helps youth around the world to dream big, to continue to have big dreams that you can achieve, and you can win.
Look at Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Jeremy Lin, or Fred VanFleet, all these guys … it’s a group of guys from different places that just come together, play, and play to win.
“We’re the only team in the NBA outside the US. And we represent the NBA in an international way.”